People who are diagnosed with cancer often experience a wide range of emotions, as well as a sense of urgency to get into treatment as soon as possible. Usually with a new diagnosis there is a period of time, depending on the cancer type and stage, before treatment begins. During this time, getting a second opinion may be an essential and necessary component of treating one’s diagnosis.

How a Second Opinion Can Help:

  • Confirm your diagnosis
  • Determine if the cancer has spread
  • Perspective from specialists with different expertise (such as a radiation oncologist or surgical oncologist)
  • Determine clinical trials or alternative therapies that apply to your treatment plan
  • Other treatment options
  • Confidence on how to proceed with your care

Situations Where a Second Opinion May be Important:

  • You have a rare or unusual cancer
  • You feel uncomfortable with your doctor, the diagnosis or you need confirmation
  • Your health insurance requires it
  • The treatment offered has side effects or risks that you find disconcerting
  • The treatment options will result in unacceptable or unreasonable demands on your life and your family
  • Your doctor’s treatment goals are different from your own
  • Your cancer is not responding to your current treatment

The First Step: Talk to Your Doctor

Many people feel reluctant and resistant to seek a second opinion. People living with cancer and caregivers are often concerned that asking their doctor about a second opinion will create an uncomfortable relationship with that doctor, which may negatively affect their medical care. Other patients may be confused by the complexity of the health care system, are too overwhelmed by their diagnosis or too intimidated or are not aware that they have that right to a second opinion. However, most medical professionals expect a patient to get a second opinion.

Discuss getting a second opinion with the doctor who diagnosed you. Most doctors welcome a second opinion. It provides you and your doctor with either confirmation of their diagnosis and treatment, more details about their diagnosis, additional treatment options or recommendations for alternative diagnoses and treatments. Your doctor may have suggestions or referrals.

If not, contact a medical society associated with your cancer, academic medical institution or a National Cancer Institute-designated facility. It is strongly advised that one go for a second opinion at a different medical institution, since this will involve different clinics and pathologists.

It’s important to be clear and upfront. Here are a few statements that can help start the conversation with your doctor:

  • “I respect your opinion but I would like to speak with one other expert before starting your recommended treatment. How can I proceed?”
  • “I need the reassurance of a second opinion and I’d like to talk with another doctor to be sure. What is the next step?”
  • “This is all so new to me and I feel that a second opinion could help me give me clarity.”

An Oncology Social Worker Can Help

Oncology social workers understand the complex issues that can arise when considering a second opinion. An oncology social worker can help you navigate this process and make you feel comfortable talking with your health care team. CancerCare’s professional oncology social workers can help, free of charge. To speak with a professional oncology social worker, call 800-813-HOPE (4673).

Edited by Carly O’Brien, LCSW, OSW-C